The Increasingly Desperate Attack on Democracy

In Congress and behind the scenes, Trump and his allies try to hang onto power, in spite of both the voters and the law.

Whenever dealing with a Trump story, I like to take a moment to remember how things were before his regime took power. Otherwise, it’s easy to forget how unusual and un-American these last four years have been.

According to the procedures established in the 12th Amendment and the Electoral Count Act of 1887, every four years a joint session of Congress meets on January 6 to formally receive and tally the electoral votes of the states. Typically this is a non-event; you probably don’t even remember it happening in 2017 or 2013. In 2005, two Democrats — Barbara Boxer in the Senate and Tubbs Jones in the House — used it as a stage to call attention to voter suppression in Ohio. The Senate defeated Boxer’s challenge 74-1, and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry refused to endorse it. No one viewed it as a serious attempt to undo the election.

The only other challenge was in 1969, and concerned whether or not to count the vote of a faithless elector. Whichever side won that challenge, Richard Nixon would become president.

In short, the United States has a long tradition of respecting the elections held in November. Until now.

This is the first time since 1877 that we have arrived at January 6 with the loser of the election claiming that he won, and pressuring the system to put him in office. It is the first time ever that an incumbent president has used the power of his office to push such a claim.

Normally, we have an election in November, the votes are tallied, and the loser concedes as soon as the outcome is clear. It took a little longer to count the votes this time, but the outcome has been clear since November 7. This election was not close: Biden won the popular vote by more than 7 million, and carried the Republican-biased Electoral College 306-232.

But Trump’s effort to hang onto power illegitimately continues on multiple fronts.

The extortion call. Until yesterday, “Trump’s extortion call” would have referred to his July 2019 conversation with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, the one where he asked for a “favor” in exchange for releasing desperately needed military aid appropriated by Congress. He got impeached for that, and would have been removed from office if not for Republican partisanship in the Senate. Susan Collins famously voted to let him off, speculating that he had “learned a pretty big lesson“.

Yesterday, we found out what lesson he really did learn: He can get away with extortion calls.

Sunday, the Washington Post released excerpts, a full recording, and a transcript of a call Trump made Saturday to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who oversaw the certification of the election in which Trump lost Georgia and its 18 electoral votes.

In the call, Trump insists that “I won this election by hundreds of thousands of votes. There’s no way I lost Georgia. There’s no way. We won by hundreds of thousands of votes.” And he pressures Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we [need to win the state]”. (Trump actually says “have” rather than “need”, but it’s clear what he means.) He tells Raffensperger “there’s nothing wrong with saying that, you know, um, that you’ve recalculated.”

In claiming that he’s entitled to these votes, Trump rehashes a laundry list of debunked conspiracy theories, which Raffensperger rebuts:

I don’t believe that you’re really questioning the Dominion machines. Because we did a hand retally, a 100% retally of all the ballots and compared them to what the machines said and came up with virtually the same result. Then we did the recount, and we got virtually the same result. So I guess we can probably take that off the table.

Trump deflects but does not acknowledge reality: Dominion machines did switch votes, he claims, but he doesn’t need those votes because he has other claims, all of which are equally groundless.

He makes a series of vague threats of mob violence in Georgia or prosecution of Raffensperger: “The people of Georgia are angry. … I hate to imagine what’s going to happen on Monday [when Trump has a rally in Georgia] or Tuesday, but it’s very scary to people. … [I]t is more illegal for you than it is for them because, you know what they did and you’re not reporting it. That’s a criminal, that’s a criminal offense. And you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer. … But I mean, all of this stuff is very dangerous stuff. When you talk about no criminality, I think it’s very dangerous for you to say that.”

Raffensperger and his lawyer Ryan Germany calmly rebut all Trump claims, and stand by the accuracy of the election results: Trump lost Georgia. Trump refuses to accept this, and pressures them to release privileged voter data to his lawyers. (I believe this would allow Trump to know how individual people voted.) Germany replies “I don’t think we can give access to data that’s protected by law.” Trump lawyer Kurt Hilbert suggests an illegal work-around: “[I]s it possible that the secretary of state could deputize the lawyers for the president so that we could access that information and private information without you having any kind of violation?”

Crime or insanity? I have to agree with Mark Hamill:

Listening to the entire phone call is like discovering a long-lost episode of The Sopranos.

Trump never says: “I need you to cheat for me and bad things will happen to you if you don’t.” — just like Tony Soprano never says, “I want you to murder that guy.” Instead, the call is full of innuendo and falsehoods: not cheat for me, but believe these outrageous lies and act like they’re true.

Lots of mobsters are behind bars for conversations like this. If the intention is clear, the literal meaning of the words doesn’t necessarily matter. Several legal experts have said Trump violated the law by pressuring an election official to reverse an election. Here’s former Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Bromwich:

Unless there are portions of the tape that somehow negate criminal intent, “I just want to find 11,780 votes” and his threats against Raffensperger and his counsel violate 52 U.S. Code § 20511. His best defense would be insanity.

Lawrence Lessig allows for the possibility that Trump really believes all the nonsense he’s spouting. In that case, insanity would be more than just a legal ploy.

When you listen to the tape, what’s most striking is that he really sounds like he believes that he’s been robbed of the election. Like he really believes there were hundreds of thousands of ballots stolen or reversed — and is pleading with the SOS to reverse a crime. If that’s true, this doesn’t evince a crime. It evinces that the man has no connection to reality. Impeachment isn’t the remedy for that. The 25th Amendment is.

Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein is not a lawyer, but draws the obvious political conclusion:

In any other conceivable moment in US history, this tape would result in the leadership of both parties demanding the immediate resignation of the President of the United States.

Raffensperger. Raffensperger has already spoken out about being pressured by Trump’s allies. In November, he said that Lindsey Graham had pressured him to find a way not to count legally cast mail-in votes. Graham denied doing that, which is why Raffensperger decided to make a recording this time.

So why not record the call with the president, Raffensperger’s advisers thought, if nothing else for fact-checking purposes. “This is a man who has a history of reinventing history as it occurs,” one of them told Playbook. “So if he’s going to try to dispute anything on the call, it’s nice to have something like this, hard evidence, to dispute whatever he’s claiming about the secretary. Lindsey Graham asked us to throw out legally cast ballots. So yeah, after that call, we decided maybe we should do this.”

Raffensperger held the tape until Trump mischaracterized the call:

I spoke to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger yesterday about Fulton County and voter fraud in Georgia. He was unwilling, or unable, to answer questions such as the “ballots under table” scam, ballot destruction, out of state “voters”, dead voters, and more. He has no clue!

As with the Ukraine call, the Raffensperger call is just the one we happen to know about. We can only wonder: How many other calls has he made to pressure election officials into breaking the law for him?

Shenanigans in Congress. On Wednesday, Congress meets to officially receive and count the electoral votes. Ordinarily this is a formality that the public barely notices, but we’ve never before had an autocrat pulling out all the stops to stay in power (and quite likely to stay out of jail). Back in August, when I was considering Trump’s options for overthrowing democracy, I circled this date:

Here’s something I have great faith in: If the joint session of Congress on January 6 recognizes that Joe Biden has received the majority of electoral votes, he will become president at noon on January 20 and the government will obey his orders. Where Donald Trump is at the time, and whatever he is claiming or tweeting, will be of no consequence.

The inauguration itself is a tradition, not a constitutional requirement. Biden has to take the oath, but he could do it in his basement in Delaware. (After the Kennedy assassination, Vice President Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One.) Congress’ recognition of his election signals to the rest of the government that Biden becomes president on January 20.

It appears there will be a challenge. Dozens of Republican congresspeople have said they will challenge the electors of various states, possibly including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Saturday, seven current Republican senators and four who will take their seats in the new Senate announced their support for Trump’s coup attempt. This is not a formality or a protest: Trump is claiming that he should remain in office in spite of the state-certified election results, and these Republicans are backing that claim.

This has never happened before in American history.

According to their joint statement, the senators are demanding that Congress

immediately appoint an Electoral Commission, with full investigatory and fact-finding authority, to conduct an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns in the disputed states. Once completed, individual states would evaluate the Commission’s findings and could convene a special legislative session to certify a change in their vote, if needed.

This would keep the drama going right up to January 20, when the Trump and Pence terms end. If no successor has been recognized by then, we’re in uncharted territory. In that scenario, probably Nancy Pelosi has the best claim on the office.

The statement cites “unprecedented allegations of voter fraud, violations and lax enforcement of election law, and other voting irregularities” as a reason for this Commission, which the statement suggests should be modeled on the one that delivered the presidency to Rutherford Hayes in 1876 (as part of a deal that ended Reconstruction and set the stage for the Jim Crow era in the South).

Coyly, the senators make no actual allegations, and provide no evidence that there was any significant fraud — because there is no such evidence. Trump’s allegations have been raised in the appropriate venues and have been rejected at every turn by state and local election boards, secretaries of state, and state and federal courts at all levels. Often, when they get to court, Trump’s lawyers have refused to make the claims Trump makes, or that the same lawyers make to the media. There are, after all, consequences for lying to judges, but none for lying the American public.

Many of the officials who rejected the claims are Republicans (like Raffensperger) and many of the judges were appointed by Republicans, including some by Trump himself. Trump administration officials, including Attorney General Bill Barr, have found no evidence of the kind of fraud that could have decided the election. Trump has urged Republican legislatures to overturn their states’ elections, and none has done so.

Instead, the statement justifies the Election Commission by quoting polls showing that large numbers of Americans believe Trump’s lies — and the echoing lies of some of these same senators — that the election was rigged. Ben Sasse summarizes:

Right now we are locked in a destructive, vicious circle:Step 1: Allege widespread voter fraud. Step 2: Fail to offer specific evidence of widespread fraud. Step 3: Demand investigation, on grounds that there are “allegations” of voter fraud.

Facts don’t matter. It should be obvious that if such a 10-day Election Commission is convened on January 6, on January 16 we’ll be right back where we are now: The Commission might rehash some fanciful tales of fraud, but it will find no evidence (because there is no evidence). No legislatures will replace their electors. Trump will continue to say the election was rigged, and his sheep will continue to repeat his claims. Worse, he and his followers will use the very existence of a commission to claim that there was something uniquely suspect about the 2020 election. Rather than restore public confidence, the Commission would dignify Trump’s conspiracy theories.

If this were a dispute about facts, a fact-finding commission might resolve it. But the facts have been clear for a long time. (Ben Sasse has summarized them pretty well too.) Trump and his followers don’t want to accept the facts, and no one can make them. They want to overturn the election so that Trump can have a second term — and probably stay in office for life. Nothing else will satisfy them, so they will have to go unsatisfied.

Republican pushback. Fortunately, this effort to turn America fascist will fail on Wednesday, with both the House and the Senate declaring Biden the winner. Trump’s supporters will probably riot in response — so much for law and order — but they will achieve nothing.

The effort will fail because not all Republicans are going along with it. Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse have been the most vocal critics in the Republican Senate caucus, but Lindsey Graham, Tom Cotton, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski have also made statements against the challenge. Prominent Republicans not currently in office have also denounced the move. Paul Ryan, for example, was blunt:

Efforts to reject the votes of the Electoral College and sow doubt about Joe Biden’s victory strike at the foundation of our republic. It is difficult to conceive of a more anti-democratic and anti-conservative act than a federal intervention to overturn the results of state-certified elections and disenfranchise millions of Americans. The fact that this effort will fail does not mean it will not do significant damage to American democracy.

And then? Once Congress has recognized Biden’s election, Trump has no more cards to play within the American political system. His only option then is to attempt a violent revolution. This could be why all living former defense secretaries — including Trump secretaries James Mattis and Mark Esper — issued a statement urging current Pentagon officials to cooperate in the Biden transition (which Trump’s people have not been doing).

Acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller and his subordinates — political appointees, officers and civil servants — are each bound by oath, law and precedent to facilitate the entry into office of the incoming administration, and to do so wholeheartedly. They must also refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election or hinder the success of the new team.

My personal prediction is that Trump will back down from starting an armed conflict that he will lose, just as he has lost everywhere else. Instead, I expect that after Congress votes and the Proud Boys riot, he will enter the bargaining stage of his defeat: We’ll start hearing about all the horrible things he could still do, and what he wants in order to restrain himself from doing them.

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  • Roger  On January 4, 2021 at 11:16 am

    I agree with everything you wrote except the last paragraph. Jan 6 is not the end, and nor is Jan 20. What we have now is the beer hall putsch.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On January 4, 2021 at 12:30 pm

      The difference is that Trump is a terrible leader, lacking the courage and organizational skills he would need to direct a “shadow government” of the kind Rasmus envisions. Trump’s goal isn’t to enact a particular agenda; it’s to amass wealth and stay out of prison. The Congress members who are challenging the election results aren’t Trump’s followers – they’re using him.

      I wouldn’t worry about the Proud Boys either. It was foolish of them to telegraph their intentions, especially about dressing in black. Any violence will now be blamed on them, and not “antifa.” It’s not like these clowns will be a match for the DC police, either.

      • Bill  On January 4, 2021 at 5:37 pm


      • nicknielsensc  On January 5, 2021 at 9:18 am

        ” It’s not like these clowns will be a match for the DC police, either.”

        Or, for that matter, the Federal Protective Service, the Secret Service, or the Capitol Police.

  • EFCL  On January 4, 2021 at 11:47 am

    I looked at the Rasmus blog piece. There is no need to “drag Trump kicking and screaming” from the White House. Let him retain possession. Just blockade him in place, forming a siege. Turn off the electricity and water, refuse basic supplies. Eventually, he will get hungry or cold and will come out. He can then be arrested for (at least) trespassing on US Government property, because, after 12 Noon on Jan 20, he will not be entitled to stay in the White House any more than we are.

    If the Proud Boys want to riot on Jan 20, let them, and then crush them. After 12 Noon, any such riot will not be a peaceful protest gone wrong — as with BLM this summer — but, in fact, an armed insurrection against the Constitution of the United States. All participating will be guilty of sedition, not “freedom of speech”.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On January 4, 2021 at 12:18 pm

      If Trump is not out of the White House at 12:01 p.m. on January 20th, he should be removed immediately. No “siege” or cutting off the electricity. This isn’t a game and he is not entitled to special treatment.

    • nicknielsensc  On January 5, 2021 at 9:20 am

      If trump refuses to leave the White House as of noon on January 20, he will be escorted…willingly or otherwise…by his Secret Service detail. Whether they support him or not, those guys want to keep their jobs.

  • TRPChicago  On January 4, 2021 at 11:47 am

    With respect (that is lessening) to the ultra-visionary Lawrence Lessig … claiming the president of the United States cannot form sufficient intent to be found guilty of crimes of extortion and improperly influencing election officials because he is unattached to reality — that positions a dubious defense ahead of a slam dunk prosecution. Only a disassociated academic could be satisfied with that analysis.

  • Bill  On January 4, 2021 at 11:48 am

    If as you suggest this all leads to a final Trump bargaining gambit (….and I suspect this will happen as well) …then all the more reason to start new impeachment and criminal prosecution actions immediately. Load up on more bargaining chips. It’s the only thing he’ll understand.
    Yes..after the 20th, he’ll still want the stage and spotlight, but his leverage for such will thankfully be greatly reduced.

  • rmc0917  On January 4, 2021 at 12:01 pm

    All of this is based on the existence of the Electoral College. Should Trump be facing overturning a 7 million vote deficit, there really would be nothing he could do (I think). Perhaps this will finally swing popular opinion towards abolishing this archaic relic of efforts to cobble together enough states to ratify the Constitution.


    • TRPChicago  On January 4, 2021 at 12:08 pm

      Republicans will clutch at the “venerable” Electoral College just like they have exploited state-level gerrymandering. In the face of Trumpian excesses, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

  • JP  On January 4, 2021 at 1:12 pm

    This attack on democracy won’t work, but it does leave me worried about what happens in 2024 if we lose congress in 2022. In my view, the Democratic House needs to do some serious investigation here. Subpoena Raffensperger and Germany and any relevant Georgia election officials and White House officials that come up, then subpoena Doug Ducey and Republican legislative leaders in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Do this both to identify and hopefully punish any malfeasance that occurred, but also to make it as clear as possible to Democratic voters what is at stake in the midterm.

  • Carolyn Segersin  On January 6, 2021 at 3:29 pm

    “Fortunately, this effort to turn America fascist will fail on Wednesday, with both the House and the Senate declaring Biden the winner. Trump’s supporters will probably riot in response — so much for law and order — but they will achieve nothing.”

    Might wanna rethink that.

    • Daniel.  On January 7, 2021 at 7:52 pm

      …well, hm. They achieved some hours of delay, but also made the senate less willing to delay the process. Not fully clear whether they moved Biden’s certification forward or back, on balance. They emboldened some people, alienated others, and let everyone know (prematurely?) that the Capitol Police couldn’t be trusted to protect Congress. Not fully clear what other damage they may have done with hours of free access to all the computers and electronics in the Capitol…someone suggested, reasonably I think, that one or more hostile foreign powers may well have taken the opportunity to get some agents into that mob (a golden opportunity for them). Overall, they’ve certainly had a fair bit of impact, but it remains to be seen whether it’ll count as an “achievement” in the long run. Also, we don’t yet know how many of them will be scooped up and locked up over the next few months. The anti-mask thing may have hurt them there.

  • ccyager  On January 9, 2021 at 6:26 pm

    How prescient you were: “Trump’s supporters will probably riot in response — so much for law and order — but they will achieve nothing.”

    But they did accomplish something, the very thing they didn’t want to accomplish: Twitter shutting down Trump’s account, and now there’s a movement to have Trump removed from office before Jan. 20 whether by impeachment or by the 25th Amendment. And Trump has shut up. He opens his mouth and it only makes it worse for himself. I bet he didn’t think his supporters would meet such effective resistance or that people would turn against him so fast and fiercely. That’s the problem with being unplugged from reality.


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